Humans need humans. Anyone who has changed a plane ticket with an automated phone teller, or plodded through a digital pharmacy order is sympathetic to this fact. If only a human were on the other side of that receiver—how much easier would it be to get that ticket or that prescription? In an increasingly digital world, this seemingly mundane point about the role of humans in our lives becomes profound.
The scientific literature is clear. Humans are born into a socio-cultural world with (hopefully) socially sensitive adults who offer information that flows through a socially gated brain. Humans do not even learn the building blocks of reading or mathematics in isolation. These skills emerge in the context of early adult child interactions that feed communication skills. For example, a child learning to read does need decoding skills. Even if they sound out a word perfectly, however, they will not comprehend it if it’s not in their mental dictionary. Children cannot gather meaning from printed text without background knowledge and a rich language base. Thus, a number of scholars urge practitioners to teach reading by enriching language learning. And language learning is itself rooted in early social interactions. Social interactions are the currency of our species. As Michael Tomasello of Duke University argues, we are the ultra-human species.
But the ultra-social animal has come face to face with the non-social technology that seems to replace any need for human interaction. Since the introduction of modern smartphones in 2007 and digital tablets in 2010, we have dramatically changed our digital footprint. By 2017, children 2- to 8-years-old were using screen media for almost 3 hours a day, including 1 hour with mobile devices, the older crowd of teens are clocking in at about 9 hours per day. With only about 7-10 discretionary waking hours per day, these numbers represent a staggering entrance of technology into the daily activities of children. Our children are plugged-in, leaving little time for face-to-face interactions.
The introduction of technology is not the problem. For generations children grew with new inventions like radios and televisions. And with each new wave of technology, people worried about sacrifices that might indelibly challenge the way we interpret our humanness. What is uniquely different this time, however, is that these devices seriously crowd out opportunities for critical social interaction.
Two studies on parent-child play with digital and non-digital features make this point. In one by Anna Sosa, of Northern Arizona University, 10- to 16-month-olds played with parents using either e-toys or traditional toys like a wooden animal puzzle. In the e-toy condition, parents said fewer words and responded to the child less than in the traditional toy condition. Jennifer Zosh, of Penn State University, and colleagues, comparing digital and traditional toy sorters, witnessed a similar pattern. For the participating two-year-olds and parents, the digital context thwarted social interactions. And again, children heard fewer words in the digital than in the analog condition. Parental language was also more restricted and more behaviorally controlling in the digital condition of an e-book study that we ran in our laboratory in the pre-tablet era.